Last fall, the city of San Antonio made headlines when then–police chief William McManus announced a plan to ticket people if they were caught giving money to panhandlers. It was a mean proposal, and the public attention quickly killed the potential ordinance.
But San Antonio’s discouragement of charity and compassion toward the homeless seems to remain. Joan M. Cheever, who has been serving high-quality meals to the homeless in the city through her Chow Train food truck, learned that firsthand in early April.
As MySA.com reports:
Joan Cheever, founder of the nonprofit mobile food truck known as the Chow Train, was cited last Tuesday by San Antonio police officers for feeding the homeless in Maverick Park.
Cheever has been serving restaurant-quality meals to the city’s homeless population for the past 10 years, and has been profiled on Rachel Ray’s cooking show for her charitable efforts.
Over the years, police officers have passed by and waved as she fed homeless people, but last Tuesday night four bike-patrol officers stopped in the park and gave Cheever a ticket that carries a potential fine of $2,000. Cheever has a food permit for her mobile truck, but she was cited for transporting and serving the food from a vehicle other than that truck.
Cheever posted about the permit situation on the Chow Train’s Facebook page, explaining that she used the licensed commercial mobile kitchen to prepare the food, then placed it in Health Department–approved catering equipment—it was merely the delivery of that food that happened in an unlicensed vehicle, she writes, noting that pizza and sandwich restaurants do that without trouble.
I ask you: What is the difference between food delivery services by restaurants and Dominoes pizza, Jimmy Johns and The CHOW TRAIN. Not one gosh darn thing except $$$. When I talked to the health department and said WE–THE CHOW TRAIN– are the caterers of the poor, they said, that’s ridiculous. They don’t have a caterer. When I said, what is the difference between me bringing food into the park vs. the age old tradition of families camping out and cooking AND serving food on Easter Sunday, they told me — those people are their friends and family.
Cheever remains defiant in the face of the ticket and the potential fine. The Chow Train organization held a candlelit vigil in the park, and she vows to fight the citation in court. And the avenue that she intends to use to fight it is one that’s been responsible for a lot of headlines in the country these days: the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.
Texas’s version of that law is very different from the one that has caused controversy in Indiana in recent weeks (something that has inspired the Legislature to consider passing one that’s more Indiana-inspired), and according to Texas Public Radio, Cheever cited the law on the books to the officer who wrote her the ticket, albeit to no avail.
Cheever—who published the book Back From the Dead in 2006, about the men who left death row following the (ultimately short-lived) 1972 elimination of the death penalty—earned her undergraduate degree at Southern Methodist University and got her law degree from St. Mary’s University. She has a history of writing about and engaging in activism around issues like the death penalty and homelessness, and it’s hard to argue that feeding homeless people in the park with food prepared in a properly permitted vehicle isn’t an exercise of religion. There are certainly more examples in the Bible of Jesus giving food to hungry people than there are of him refusing to bake cakes for gay weddings, after all.
The Religious Freedom Restoration Act that went into effect in Texas in 1999 is specific about what it does and doesn’t protect. It doesn’t “establish or eliminate a defense to a civil action or criminal prosecution” in a civil rights suit—meaning that if you claim that your religion prevents you from making pizzas for gay people, you can’t avoid a discrimination suit by citing the law. Frequently, it’s been used by Native Americans to do things like prevent schools or employers from forcing them to cut their hair. Lawmakers have proposed bills in the current legislative session that would alter the language considerably, removing the civil rights protections and no longer requiring a state-imposed burden to be “substantial.” (These bills are currently considered unlikely to pass.)
Meanwhile, the San Antonio Express-News notes that treating Cheever’s citation as an isolated incident is difficult, given the way the city has treated issues around homelessness recently:
Over the past year, it’s become increasingly obvious that the city wants its homeless population out of the view of downtown tourists. It wants to push the homeless west of downtown to Haven for Hope, and discourage any acts of compassion that might divert them from that destination.
Last September, then-Police Chief William McManus floated the idea of making it a Class C misdemeanor to give cash to local panhandlers, an example of municipal overreach that met with scorn from the public and was abruptly dropped.
Express-News reporter Benjamin Olivo also reported that benches had been discreetly removed from Houston Street because city staffers worried that the benches led to loitering and panhandling in the area.
There was also the case of Calvary Chapel of San Antonio, which for 17 years had devoted the last Saturday of October to handing out food and clothes to the needy in Travis Park. Last year, the city bumped them from the park that Saturday, until then-Councilman Diego Bernal raised an objection.
It remains to be seen how the City of San Antonio will treat Cheever and the Chow Train, of course. The last time public outrage was triggered by the city’s discouraging charity, the city reversed course quickly, and it’s possible that the charges against Cheever will be dropped. That would seemingly be a rational response to a case that’s attracted a lot of attention for the way that it seems to outlaw charity, in a city that’s made no bones about wanting to keep charity restricted to very specific parts of town.